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BlackPast is dedicated to providing reliable information on the history of Black people across the globe, and especially in North America. Our goal is to promote greater understanding of our common human experience through knowledge of the diversity of the Black experience and the ubiquity of the global Black presence.
This Women’s History Month we carry forward the theme of RESISTANCE from Black History Month 2023. We’re centering not only female agency but Black women’s activism, which has always been mobilized in service of the community. This week we shine a spotlight on the right to vote and the Black suffragettes who fought for equal rights at the ballot box.
The passage of the 14th Amendment in 1866 has rightly been seen as a defining moment in American history when the citizenship rights that Black soldiers were fighting for was incontrovertibly acknowledged by statute granting them the franchise. The legislation tied the number of seats in Congress to the size of the voters roll, forcing Confederate states to ratify the law in order to regain representation (recall the House gave southern states credit for their human chattel by counting them as three-fifths of a White man, thereby increasing the number of their representatives).
The new legislation nullified the Dred Scott judgement of almost a decade earlier and was a spur to the National Equal Rights League which now pursued the right for all Black men to vote: “it is the duty of every colored citizen to obtain a repeal of any law which disenfranchises him on the soil on which he was born.” Note that the new provision of the constitution extended the right to vote to Black men only, thereby defining the franchise as solely a male privilege.
The passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869 prohibited federal and state governments from limiting the franchise because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”, again former Confederate states had little option but to ratify the amendment. It is ironic given its later history that Mississippi was among the first to comply, leading to the election of the state’s first Black senator, Hiram Revels, who was sent to Washington to finish out the term vacated by Jefferson Davis in 1861.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
What about Black women’s voting rights? Harriet Purvis is an important figure in the history of the Black vote. Purvis joined the American Woman Suffrage Association, which was formed by the stalwart suffragist, Lucy Stone, to fight for “women and African Americans equally” and become its first Black president in 1876. A speech by Sojourner Truth noting that “If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, colored men will be the masters over the women …” resonated with her and the other brilliant Black educators and civil rights advocates she introduced into the AWSA, including poet Frances Ellen Watkins, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)
The icons of the women’s suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, among many, believed that dismantling the American system of colorism was secondary to the enfranchisement of White women. At a 12th May, 1869 meeting, Anthony without irony declared: “the old anti-slavery school says women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will give the whole load of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first (Applause.) If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last. (Applause).”
Howard University’s first female law graduate, the brilliant Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1832-1893), was a pragmatic and forceful leader of the Black women’s movement and she joined forces with Anthony and Cady Stanton to petition for the enfranchisement of women in Washington, D.C. Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee, she argued that: “From the introduction of … African slavery to its extinction, a period of more than two hundred years, they … equally with their fathers, brothers, denied the right to vote. This fact of their investiture with the privileges of free women of the same time and by the same amendments which disentralled (sic) their kinsmen and conferred upon the latter the right of franchise without so endowing themselves is one of the anomalies of a measure of legislation otherwise grand in conception and consequences beyond comparison.”
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1835-1911)
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AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY
ACTIVISTS AND ACTIVISM
Global Black History - Anglophone Sphere
Global Black History - European Colonialism
Frederick Douglass on Women's Suffrage (1888)
Frederick Douglass was one of the few men present at the pioneer woman’s rights convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. His support of women’s rights never wavered although in 1869 he publicly disagreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who insisted women’s suffrage took precedence over universal suffrage for all men. Nonetheless, Douglass remained a constant champion of the right of women to vote. In April 1888, in a speech before the International Council of Women, in Washington, D.C., Douglass recalls his role at the Seneca Falls convention although he insists that women rather than men should be the primary spokespersons for the movement. The text of his speech appears below.
Mrs. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:— I come to this platform with unusual diffidence. Although I have long been identified with the Woman’s Suffrage movement, and have often spoken in its favor, I am somewhat at a loss to know what to say on this really great and uncommon occasion, where so much has been said.
When I look around on this assembly, and see the many able and eloquent women, full of the subject, ready to speak, and who only need the opportunity to impress this audience with their views and thrill them with “thoughts that breathe and words that burn,” I do not feel like taking up more than a very small space of your time and attention, and shall not. I would not, even now, presume to speak, but for the circumstance of my early connection with the cause, and of having been called upon to do so by one whose voice in this Council we all gladly obey. Men have very little business here as speakers, anyhow; and if they come here at all they should take back benches and wrap themselves in silence. For this is an International Council, not of men, but of women, and woman should have all the say in it. This is her day in court. I do not mean to exalt the intellect of woman above man’s; but I have heard many men speak on this subject, some of them the most eloquent to be found anywhere in the country; and I believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself. The man struck is the man to cry out. Woman knows and feels her wrongs as man cannot know and feel them, and she also knows as well as he can know, what measures are needed to redress them. I grant all the claims at this point. She is her own best representative. Read more here
A Proud Legacy
Three women hold the title of first PhDs earned by African American women. Sadie Tanner Mossell (1898-1989), Georgiana Simpson (1866-1944), and Eva Beatrice Dykes (1893-1986) all received their degrees in 1921. Sadie Tanner Mossell received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in Law; Georgiana Simpson received her PhD from the University of Chicago in German; and Eva Beatrice Dykes received her PhD from Howard University in English.
General Hazel Johnson (1927- 2011)
Hazel Johnson was the first African American woman to become a general in the U.S. Army. She was appointed the Chief of the Army Nurse Corps in 1979. Johnson held a doctorate in education administration from Catholic University (1978) and had honorary degrees from Morgan State University, Villanova University, and the University of Maryland.
Gen. Johnson is among thirteen women featured in our entry, Black Woman: A Proud Legacy. BlackPast.org also has a section called 101 African American Firsts form which our spotlight on notable Black Women in America is taken. Check out the blog. The reader/researcher will find many hours of satisfaction.
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